First, the water level in a pond inexplicably plunged. Then, thousands of toads appeared on streets in a nearby province. Finally, just hours before China’s worst earthquake in three decades, animals at a local zoo began acting strangely.
As bodies are pulled from the wreckage of Monday’s quake, Chinese online chat rooms and blogs are buzzing with a question: Why didn’t these natural signs alert the government that a disaster was coming?
“If the seismological bureau were professional enough they could have predicted the earthquake 10 days earlier, when several thousand cubic meters of water disappeared within an hour in Hubei, but the bureau there dismissed it,” one commentator wrote.
In fact, seismologists say, it is practically impossible to predict when and where a quake will strike.
Several countries, including China, have sought to use changes in nature — mostly animal behavior — as an early warning sign. But so far, no reliable way has been found to use animals to predict earthquakes, said Roger Musson, a seismologist with the British Geological Survey.
That has not stopped a torrent of online discussion. Even the mainstream media chimed in, with an article in Tuesday’s China Daily questioning why the government did not predict the quake.
The first sign came about three weeks ago, when a large volume of water suddenly disappeared from a pond in Enshi City, Hubei Province, around 560km east of the epicenter, media reports said.
Then, three days before the earthquake, thousands of toads roamed the streets of Mianzhu, a hard-hit city where at least 2,000 people have been reported killed.
Mianzhu residents feared the toads were a sign of an approaching natural disaster, but a local forestry bureau official said it was normal, the Huaxi Metropolitan newspaper reported on May 10.
The day of the earthquake, zebras banged their heads against their enclosure door at the zoo in Wuhan, more than 1,000km east of the epicenter, the Wuhan Evening Paper said.
Elephants swung their trunks wildly, almost hitting a zoo staffer. The 20 lions and tigers, which normally would be asleep at midday, were walking around. Five minutes before the quake hit, dozens of peacocks started screeching.
There are a few possible reasons for such behavior, Musson said. The most likely is that the movement of underground rocks before a quake generates an electrical signal that some animals can perceive. Another theory holds that other animals can sense weak shocks before a quake that are imperceptible to humans.
Zhang Xiaodong, a researcher at the China Seismological Bureau, said his agency has used natural activity to predict quakes 20 times in the past 20 years, but that represents a small proportion of China’s earthquakes.
In the winter of 1975, officials ordered the evacuation of Haicheng, Liaoning Province, the day before a 7.3 magnitude quake, based on reports of unusual animal behavior and changes in ground water levels. Still, more than 2,000 people died.
Meanwhile in Hong Kong, feng shui master Raymond Lo says animals may be the reason China has been hit by crippling blizzards, riots in Tibet, chaos on the Olympic torch relay, a bloody train crash and Monday’s massive quake.
Lo said part of the problem may stem from the birthdates of Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) and Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶). Both were born in 1942, the year of the horse. This is the year of the rat.